EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

A changing region defies simple explanations.

  • The Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, and the Iran nuclear deal have profoundly changed the Middle East and North Africa.

  • Simplistic conflict narratives that focus on two opposing camps are increasingly outdated. The conflicts in the Middle East are about much more than just the Israeli-Palestinian or the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the relationships within and between these conflicts are changing. For example, Arab governments tend to realize that they share certain interests with Israel as a result of the new political reality.

  • Future negotiation initiatives have to take these new conflict narratives and the shifting balance of power in the region into account or they will not be effective.

Strategic action requires in-depth analysis.

While regional initiatives in the Middle East are not a new idea, they lack analysis that deals with the regional repercussions, unintended consequences, and system effects of new political moves. While new alliances are emerging, the ripple effects of these power shifts across the region are difficult to predict. In this situation, an in-depth analysis of the MENA conflict system is both an important “conflict management database” as well as a strategic commodity for actors and third parties within and outside the region.

A complex conflict system needs a new approach.

Many observers assume that one specific conflict (for example, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) is the main source of instability in the Middle East. Instead of making such an assumption, this report treats all conflicts in the MENA region as interconnected within a complex regional conflict system.

 
 
  • What are the practical implications of “regional” negotiation initiatives?

  • Which parties care about which issues? How are these issues connected?

  • If a specific regional issue is resolved, what are likely spillover effects?

  • What are the connections between the conflicts, parties, and issues within the region?

This interconnected way of looking at the MENA region can help answer questions such as:

This reports provides the reader with a systemic conflict mapping of the Middle East and North Africa. It lets the reader discover the various interconnections across the region and allows for the experimentation with new, creative regional initiatives. It organizes complex data in an easily accessible way.

The report identifies and analyses:

five primary sub-conflicts within the MENA region that have a significant impact beyond their respective borders

 

three secondary sub-conflicts with a more limited regional impact

 

eight cross-cutting issues that impact the parties across the region

SELECTED FINDINGS

The multi-faceted network of relationships in the MENA conflict system connects the parties as allies, partners, rivals, adversaries, active armed opponents, proxies, external sponsors, and aid donors/recipients.

  • The two sub-conflicts that are connected with the greatest number of other conflicts and issues in the region are the War in Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

  • The spillover effects of these two sub-conflicts have a significant impact on the MENA conflict system.

  • The top issue that connects with the greatest number of other conflicts and issues in the region is terrorism/violent extremism, followed by regional forced displacement crises, human rights and democracy issues, and the rivalry between great powers for regional influence.


 

Opportunities and Leverage Points

Relying on systemic stakeholder mapping, this report contains in-depth assessments of various conflicts and parties as well as summaries, overviews, and rankings of key conflict features.

 

It contains portraits of 59 state and non-state actors, including regional players and outside powers, and their conflict narratives, networks of relationships, and sources of leverage.

 

The portraits are summaries geared towards real-world applicability. These summaries are based on longer, in-depth assessments available in a separate section.

CONFLICT SYSTEM INVOLVEMENT

Out of the 59 actors that are analyzed in this report, the following 10 parties have the greatest conflict system involvement, i.e. they have “the most at stake” in the entire MENA region (vs. other parties who may have isolated interests in selected sub-conflicts only):

  • States within the region: Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syrian Government, Turkey

  • Non-state actors: Hezbollah, ISIS

  • External actors/organizations: EU, UN, USA

Note that "involvement" does not necessarily mean that a party has the capabilities to effectively pursue its interests.

 

NETWORKS OF RELATIONSHIPS

SELECTED FINDINGS

  • ISIS, Iran, and the Syrian government are facing an especially high number of active armed opponents, adversaries, and rivals across the region.

  • In the cases of Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, the high number of their negative relationships significantly reduces their net relationship score, even though these three also have a substantial number of allies and partners.

  • Vice versa, the especially high number of alliances and partnerships that the United States was able to build allows it to balance the high number of its negative relationships.

Example: All negative relationships across the region

 

A tactical and strategic navigation tool

  • This report is helpful for those interested in navigating the complex political landscape in the Middle East and North Africa.

  • It can inform future negotiation initiatives that may move the region towards a more cooperative system.

  • It allows the reader to “play out” new political moves by identifying the connections through which ripples effects will be relayed. It can hence serve as an “early warning system” and help classify ineffective or counterproductive moves with destabilizing consequences.

Sample scenario: the unraveling of the Iranian nuclear deal

with full scenarios

DOWNLOAD

EXECUTIVE

SUMMARY

The MENA Negotiation Report. © 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 President and Fellows of Harvard College